Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 5
(June 6, 2000)

Kamendian insisted on waiting until the entire legion had paid their respects and destroyed their insignia before leaving to look for a spot in another legion. Many of the other legionnaires had no such compunctions, scurrying off as soon as they passed the pyre.

“Every minute we stand here makes it harder to find a space with one of the other legions, Kamendian. We’re not legionnaires any more, so let’s go,” Tellias hissed, looking uncomfortably after the departing legionnaires. Half of their own cohort had already wandered off.

Kamendian chose not to pay attention, instead turning to Captain Idrian. “What are you going to do now, Captain?”

The captain smiled sadly at him. “You don’t need to call me captain anymore, son. I’m going to be joining the Amber Peregrine. The Legate sent a messenger after the dissolutions were announced, and it seemed like the best choice that was going to present itself.”

Tellias leaned over. “I don’t mean to presume, sir, but do you think you could maybe take us along? We don’t have any prospects lined up just at present, and…”

“I’d like to, lads,” interrupted the captain, “you’ve both been good soldiers. But I don’t have the authority. I’m just going to be a simple legionnaire with the Amber Peregrine. The Legate’s taking men with command experience only. Likely he’s going to fill the ranks from the auxiliaries when we get to our new posting. Sorry.”

Tellias’ face fell. “Do you think any of the other Legates will be taking legionnaires?”

“Hard to say, lad. With the legions moving around to new postings, most commanders would prefer to avoid the trouble of mixing new soldiers into the ranks. Easier to wait until you’re safely camped and then draw from the auxiliaries. On the other hand, it’s none too prudent to leave a few thousand ex-soldiers roaming the north with nothing to do, but with things the way they are, I doubt the Chancellor wants to make any of the Legates angry by forcing them to take men.

“If you’re set on sticking with the legions, your best bet is probably to follow a legion to their new post and try to get noticed there. You might not make it into the legion proper — you’d be competing with auxiliaries they know well — but with your service records, you’d certainly be able to get a place in the auxiliaries.”

It was clear that a place in the auxiliaries did little to excite Tellias. He’d dished out more than his fair share of derision to the young men and boys who did camp labor and filled out guard shifts in times of battle, and the horror of being on the other end of the transaction was plain to see on his face. Kamendian suspected he looked no more thrilled himself.

The captain chuckled. “Well, if the auxiliaries don’t appeal, you could try following the Amber Peregrine and I’ll put in a good word for you when we reach camp. Nothing’s guaranteed, but your chances would be better.”

“Thanks, sir, but…I think I’ll try the other legions first.”

“Fair enough. I warn you, though, like as not you’ll end up selling your sword to one of these border lords. And if I hear any of my men have turned bandit, I’ll come take your head myself!”

“Yes, sir!” both men replied.

Idrian smiled. “Well, good luck to the both of you. If you find yourself wanting to take up the Imperial armor again, come find me and I’ll do what I can. The Amber Peregrine’s being posted at the Vannetasian border for the time being; you’ll find me there. Now you’d better be off looking for a new legion. I think a few have already broken camp.”

The captain was right. When they left the Ebony Cormorant compound, the Ivory Wolf was mostly gone, leaving only a handful of tents for soldiers too badly wounded to move.

“We’d better move,” Tellias said.

The Chrysolite Owl had taken on all the legionnaires it needed. The Malachite Dragon was planning to replace its losses from its auxiliaries. The Lapis Cormorant was only taking discharged legionnaires with command experience. And on it went, through every legion Tellias and Kamendian found still encamped. A number of the men they talked to cast scornful looks at Kamendian’s unmarked body.

“You’re a positive hindrance, Kamendian,” Tellias groaned. “Why’d you have to go and get miraculously healed?”

“Shut up.”

After a long afternoon of fruitless inquiries, they worked their way back toward the Ebony Cormorant encampment. “If we’re lucky, maybe we can persuade the cooks to cut loose some food for old times’ sake,” Tellias said hopefully.

“Legionnaire sirs!” came a hoarse voice from behind them. As they turned, they saw a small pale fellow rushing up to them.

“All offense, legionnaire sirs, please excuse. Your legion dissolved, I think?” the man said. He wore an ornate Vannetasian general’s coat made for a man a full head taller than him, and his pale yellow hair was woven into a mass of small braided strands. Probably a Quintanelle, from his odd phrasing. Everywhere Kamendian had traveled, he’d found Quintanelles trading with anyone and everyone who’d do business with them, and not a one of them spoke the common tongue like a normal person.

“What do you want?” said Tellias flatly. He was the acknowledged master of getting rid of beggars, madmen, and merchants.

“My desire, to make you wealthy. At the door, fortune knocks. Again, your legion dissolved, I think?”

“Our legion dissolved. In our pockets, no money. Go away.”

“Legionnaire sirs, wait! My desire, not to sell! To buy! In my pockets, good silver!”

Kamendian studiously continued not to look at the Quintanelle, but Tellias’ greed got the better of him. “I listen.”

“My name, Tanuke. In weapons and armaments, my soup I make. On the field of battle, unused many weapons lie. The legionnaire only to collect them goes. All others, punishment and death follows. For usable armaments, I will pay.”

Kamendian grunted in distaste. “We’re not going to loot the bodies of our friends to line your pockets.” He started moving again, puling Tellias with him.

“But your pockets, also lined! Storm Guards, your friends never! Your bellies, empty when upon honor and brotherhood they feed!” Kamendian didn’t stop.

“Your minds, if they change! Here I remain!” Tanuke called after them.

“Jackal,” Kamendian muttered.

“We have to make a living somehow. Like he says, it’s no dishonor to strip a Storm Guard. It wouldn’t hurt to make a few extra coins to keep us alive while we find something to do.”

“We already know what we’re going to do. We’re going to become legionnaires again.”

Tellias stopped. Kamendian turned and looked at him. “What?”

“Kamendian, I’d like to rejoin the legions as much as you would. But we’ve gone to every legion here, and none of them wanted us. We’re not going to be legionnaires.”

“There are other legions.”

“The ones that weren’t here? Why would they have any more room for new men than legions which lost hundreds on the field here? Or would you rather become an auxiliary, and carry water and peel roots for the next several years? Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself. Would you rather become a camp follower, in hopes of becoming an auxiliary? Because I wouldn’t. I’d rather be a mercenary. Hells, I’d rather go home and hunt swamp lizards! Maybe someday there’ll be a place for us again in the Imperial legions, but not today. Today, we have to figure how we’re going to survive. Tomorrow, we have to go find some decent equipment and find a job. And right now, we have to find some dinner.”

Kamendian tried to summon up a good counter-argument, but the words died in his throat. Tellias pushed him toward the camp, and Kamendian didn’t protest.

At the camp kitchens, Tellias sidled up to his favorite cook.

“How about a meal for a poor retired soldier down on his luck, cookie?”

“Eh? Oh, you again. No worries, Tellias. The Chancellor’s chartered the camp prefects from the disbanded legions to maintain camps for the wounded, so the legions can depart for their posts without leaving their healers behind. We’ll be here a while yet. No reason we can’t feed an extra mouth or two for a few days.” The cook produced a couple hunks of brown bread and ladled some chunks of stewed goat out for each man.

“Much obliged, cookie,” Tellias mumbled around a mouthful of bread. “Come on, Kamendian. Let’s go find a tent to bed down in for the night. Tomorrow, we start anew.”

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 4
(May 31, 2000)

The funeral began when the diviners said it was noon, but the sky was a uniform grey and the sun was nowhere to be seen as the legionnaires of the Ebony Cormorant fell into ranks to pay their last respects to their commander. The legion was a pale shadow of the glorious band of warriors that had marched down Sarangia’s Triumphal Way on the way to the front. Not a man among them was outfitted completely, and many were leaning on their neighbors, barely strong enough to stand.

Kamendian felt uncomfortable. The padding under his cuirass was stiff with blood; he hadn’t been able to find a replacement in time for the ceremony. He was carrying two legionnaire insignias in addition to his own, the insignias of two of his comrades in the Sixth Cohort who hadn’t survived the battle. His cohort had numbered fifty the morning before; now they were twenty-two, and only twelve were fit to muster. The Sixth had suffered heavier losses than some, but all the cohorts were seriously depleted.

Legate Orontes lay on the pyre, arrayed in full ceremonial armor. He had been wearing that armor the first time Kamendian saw him, when he was touring the northern provinces in search of recruits. Kamendian had been sixteen. Everyone in his village had lined the road to watch the Legate pass by; only a handful of old men could boast having laid eyes on such a lofty personage. Kamendian had been sure to be at the front of the crowds.

He had not known what to expect, but the Legate was more splendid than he could possibly have imagined. His enamelled armor was red like blood, accented with stripes of Imperial purple. At his side hung a traditional saber in an ornate scabbard. His mount was a powerful charger, fully two hands taller than any horse Kamendian had seen. And in his hands he carried the baton of the Ebony Cormorant, one of the four hundred Weapons of the Imperium — a tangible embodiment of the Empire’s will to fight. But it was his eyes that held Kamendian’s attention. He had expected the Legate to be a warrior out of a fireside tale, with hard eyes and a grim countenance. But Orontes smiled at the villagers as he passed along. His eyes were green, not steely grey; their expression was not forbidding, but almost paternal. His eyes bespoke a boundless confidence in his own strength and in the strength of the Empire — a promise of safety to the Empire’s subjects and danger to her enemies.

Kamendian had watched after the Legate until the procession had long since passed out of sight. The next day, he had rolled his meager possessions into his spare shirt and run after the procession, knowing only that he wanted to serve Legate Orontes, to help him, and perhaps one day to be like him.

And now he was dead. According to Tellias, he had been killed late in the battle, when the Anacharsian mages had laid down a barrage of magefire in an attempt to stop the Imperial assault long enough to allow them to regroup. It hadn’t worked — the Chrysolite Owl Legion had kept up the assault — but the Ebony Cormorant had suffered horrible losses, including the Legate and seven cohort captains.

Now the remnants of the legion stood at attention in a semicircle before the pyre. The auxiliaries and camp personnel were arrayed behind them. Three men stood immediately in front of the pyre — the camp prefect, the legion’s head chaplain, and a short man Kamendian didn’t recognize. Probably one of the Ministers of the North. The prefect was outfitted in his ceremonial armor, and carried the legion baton.

The chaplain began speaking. “We assemble to retire the baton of the Ebony Cormorant until the Empire again needs it, and to honor our Legate, who gave his life to the greater glory of the Empire.

The short man stepped forward, and said, a little too loudly, “On behalf of His Majesty Anarias, Emperor of Sarangia and Defender of the Light, I come to return the Ebony Cormorant to its sheath.” He brought forth a dark case and opened it.

The camp prefect moved up to the Minister, and reverently placed the ebony baton into the case. “On behalf of Legate Orontes, I return the baton of the Ebony Cormorant to its sheath. I pray that it has served the Empire well.”

“The weapon is sheathed!” shouted the Minister.

“The weapon is sheathed,” replied the legion.

Now the chaplain began to speak again. “Orontes, prince of the Third Rank, your work is done. Be now released from this flesh. May you enjoy a favored place in the retinue of the Lord of Battles.” So saying, he motioned two auxiliaries with torches forward. They set the pyre alight.

Soon, the fire was burning well. The First Cohort’s captain walked to the pyre and laid the cohort standard onto the flames. Then he reached around his neck, removed his legion insignia, and placed it atop the standard. One by one, his men followed him, placing their insignia and those of their fallen comrades on the standard.

Watching the standard burn, Kamendian found himself thinking about the fate of Legate Orontes’ soul. All people hoped to find sufficient favor in the eyes of one of the gods to be taken into their entourage after death, but it was always possible to be found wanting and left to wander the mortal world. A masterless ghost would usually be enslaved by some necromancer, given time. A lucky few found opportunities to be reborn, but for most, servitude was their fate.

Excepting, of course, those marked as mortals for an assured place in a divine entourage. Kamendian thought about the mark the Hospitaller had seen on his forehead, and wondered if Orontes had been marked with divine favor. It seemed wrong that the Legate should be less assured of a place with the Lord of Battles than he was.

It was the Sixth Cohort’s turn. Captain Idrian gently laid the cohort standard atop the remains of the other cohorts’ insignia, then dropped his personal insignia into the flames. Then Genander, Yavun, Perestes, and Tellias. Then it was Kamendian’s turn.

The first insignia he was holding had been Devrin’s. Shammari had been his first battle as a legionnaire; he’d been promoted from the auxiliaries two weeks before. An excited kid. A Lemnarian javelin like the one that had sidelined Tellias had hit Devrin in the eye. He’d never even struck a blow.

The second insignia had been Anruun’s. There wasn’t much of it left. Anruun had been killed by the magefire, and his insignia was charred.

Kamendian dropped them both into the flames, then reached around his neck for his own insignia. He weighed the small hardwood token in his hand. The cormorant carved into its face was nearly worn down. He’d worn it every day for four years. He’d left behind everything he knew to win it. He looked up at the Legate’s body. The enamel on his armor, once glossy blood-red, was cracked and darkening with smoke. It was starting to melt. Kamendian had given up one life for the Legate, and had followed him every day of the second. He looked back at the small disc that marked him an Ebony Cormorant.

He reached out over the flames, and he let it go.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 3
(May 22, 2000)

Judging from the state of the camp, the Ebony Cormorant Legion had been hard-hit by the battle. Usually there were dozens of men moving about the central grounds of the camp on some errand or another; now there were only a handful, and most of them had at least one bandaged wound. Kamendian noticed one man aiming a bitter glare at him. Probably he assumed Kamendian had kept to the rear and avoided injury through cowardice. Not an unreasonable assumption; under ordinary circumstances, no common legionnaire would be completely healed the day after a battle. Powerful healing was reserved for officers and nobility.

“I’d like to stop by the healers’ tent, if you don’t mind,” Tellias said. “Last night they preferred to keep their resources for worse wounds than mine, but if they’ll close this up now, it would be much easier to get around. Particularly if we need to impress other legions’ recruiters.”

The two men made their way to the ground in front of the healers’ tent. The tent was surrounded by wounded men lying on the ground, several ranks deep. Among them the healers moved, giving water to one, changing a bandage for another. Tellias caught the attention of one nearest the edge. He was an older man, and he wore the characteristic torc of the Hospitallers.

“Excuse me. I suffered a wound from a javelin in the battle. Last night, the healer who tended me didn’t have time to do more than clean and bandage the wound. I was hoping that now that the camp is calmer someone might be able to help me further.”

“Of course. Eh…let me find something for you to sit on.” The Hospitaller bustled off to another tent. He returned shortly with a stool, and rapidly seated Tellias and began unravelling the bandage on his thigh.

“Hmm. Well, you’re fortunate to have gotten such a clean wound. And whoever cleaned it did an adequate job. I think I’ll forego disturbing the wound again.” He reached up and placed two fingers on Tellias’ neck, muttered to himself, and placed the same two fingers in the crook of Tellias’ elbow. Then he placed both hands on Tellias’ leg — one above the wound, one below. A moment passed.

“Aaagh!” Tellias bellowed. “What are you doing?!”

“Helping your body heal itself. The pain will pass,” replied the healer. “Please stop squirming.”

A few minutes passed, with Tellias gritting his teeth and pounding his free foot on the ground the whole time. Finally, the healer released his grip. He rose and moved behind Tellias.

“What are you doing? Oh, no! Not there!” Tellias cried as the healer placed a hand on the back of his neck.

“What kind of soldier are you? This shouldn’t hurt as much, and if I don’t…well, I suppose at least your leg would be fine.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, if I don’t finish the process, the healing would drain all of your…manly energy, let’s say. But it is your body. If you want me to stop, I will.”

Tellias fumed. “Go ahead and finish, you torturer.”

After a few more minutes, which were at least less painful-looking, the healer removed his hands from Tellias and called for a salve. One of the assistants brought over an earthen jar, and the healer began to smear a yellowish paste onto the wound.

“This should help. The wound will probably seal up in an hour or so. I would avoid running for a few days, but you should be able to walk around with no trouble.”

The healer quickly wrapped a clean bandage around Tellias’ thigh and tied it off. Then he looked over at Kamendian. “Do you need any healing?”

“No,” Kamendian replied. “I’m fine, thank you. I–” He was about to explain that he’d been wounded but had been healed the night before, but the Hospitaller had a strange expression on his face. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no, not at all. I just thought I’d met all the war chaplains in this legion. Were you transferred recently? Or are you not of the Ebony Cormorant?” inquired the healer.

“I think there’s been some mistake. I’m just a legionnaire; I’ve been here for four years. I’ve never been a chaplain.” Kamendian replied in confusion.

“Really? You are a priest, though, yes?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Strange,” said the Hospitaller. “You have the mark of divine favor right there on your forehead. It’s an unusual place for the mark of War, but it’s quite clear.”

Kamendian paled and clapped a hand to his forehead.

“What does that mean?”

“It’s self-explanatory, really. For those who have the eyes to see it, it says that you are favored by the Lord of Battles. Sometimes the mark also carries with it special gifts, but that would depend on how you got it. And, of course, after death you will be admitted into the Lord of Battles’ cohort. Weren’t you told all this when you were marked?”

“No. I didn’t know I had been.”

“That’s unusual. Most of the gods are very strict with their followers about handing out marks indiscriminately, and War more so than most.”

“I…think the person who marked me probably isn’t subject to the normal rules.”

“Not subject to the normal protocols? That seems unlikely…oh.”

The healer looked taken aback. He scrambled to his feet.

“A man or a woman?”

“A woman. It was after the battle, I think. I’d been wounded. I woke up on the field, and I’d been healed.”

“The Marquise of Nemi. This is interesting.”

Kamendian nodded. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.

“You should know that, to the best of my knowledge, Lady Morgami has never conferred the mark of divine favor on anyone else. Why she chose you I couldn’t say, but that does make you rather special.”

Tellias laughed. “Kamendian, how do you get yourself into these things?”

“I didn’t ask for this!” Kamendian snapped back.

“No one does,” said the Hospitaller quietly. “It may not be important; the Marquise is young, and she may have had a momentary whim. In either case, now you know. I should return to tending the other injured men. It has been a pleasure to meet you, Kamendian. May your path be a fortunate one.” So saying, the Hospitaller withdrew. Before Kamendian could struggle through bewilderment to say anything, a herald’s trumpet sounded at the other side of the compound.

“Men of the Ebony Cormorant, assemble!” the herald bellowed. His voice rang out across the camp. Men came struggling out of tents on every side, until perhaps two hundred men stood in the compound. The legion had numbered a thousand the morning before.

“This is it,” murmured Tellias. “They’re going to disband us.”

“His Excellency the Chancellor of the North, on behalf of His Majesty Anarias, Emperor of Sarangia and Defender of the Light, has decided, the threat of the Storm King and his allies being quelled, to retire the Ebony Cormorant, held until lately by the honorable Legate Orontes, may the gods take him under their protection.”

As the legionnaires made their way through the thick ritual language, murmuring began to rise up among the men. The herald plowed on, his voice booming out over the muttering.

“The retirement of the Ebony Cormorant leaves you legionnaires free of further obligations to the Chancery and Ministry. You may go wherever you choose. If you wish, you may seek a place at one of the other legions here encamped. Be aware that the Amber Lynx, the Tourmaline Wolf, the Carnelian Dragon, the Jade Bear, and the Jade Dragonfly have also been retired.

“You are entitled to whatever salvaged equipment from the battlefield you can carry, as your final bounty. In an hour’s time, at high noon, you will assemble in battle dress for the Legate’s passing ceremony. At that time, you will surrender your legion insignia. The Chancellor and the Emperor offer you their thanks. That is all.”

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 2
(May 16, 2000)

The boy Lady Morgami had called for him didn’t want to go all the way back to camp. Kamendian could appreciate that; the boy’s job was to find those among the fallen who were still alive and get them healing if possible. Once night fell, it would be impossible to see, dooming any unfound wounded. All the same, he wished there were some other way for him to get back to the main camp other than riding on the dead wagon.

Kamendian clambered up onto the wagon, next to the body of a Khirbitei Elkshirt. He watched the healers and the baggage-boys moving around the field, searching for wounded among the corpses strewn about. Here and there, men dragged the bodies of the dead to wagons, to be brought back to camp for blessings and a pyre. He’d had collection duty himself in the past. It was hard work, but it was preferable to the plague of hauntings which followed a battle where the fallen were left to rot.

In the west, the sun was about to sink below the horizon. It would be dark soon. Kamendian was very tired. He probed the hole in his armor; the flesh underneath was unbroken. He didn’t seem to be wounded anywhere–just a bit sore and disoriented. He should be dead.

A short, solidly-built man came up to the wagon, carrying a dead soldier over each shoulder. He looked Sarangian, probably from one of the eastern satrapies. He slung his load onto the cart, then caught sight of Kamendian.

“Still alive, then?” the short man inquired.

On another day, Kamendian might have been able to be snide. But not today. “Yes. I was hoping for a ride back to camp.”

“Mm. Bout full here. What legion you from?”

“The Ebony Cormorant.”

“Can do.” Without further elaboration, the easterner went around to the front and started the mules across the field.

The sun set while the cart moved slowly toward the main encampment. They stopped briefly at the Khirbitei camp for the mountain warriors to unload their dead, then moved on through the Imperial lines. Despite his surroundings, Kamendian was finding it increasingly hard to stay awake. He almost missed his legion’s encampment; the easterner wagon-driver had either forgotten or chosen to ignore his passenger, so Kamendian had to jump off the moving wagon. Exhausted, he stumbled into the camp. The only people moving around seemed to be from the baggage train, and he recognized none of them. He needed to sleep. In the morning, perhaps the world would make more sense. He found a tent with space on the floor, and curled up to sleep. Within moments, the world went away.

When he woke up, Kamendian wished he’d had the presence of mind to remove his armor before sleeping. Every part of him was stiff, and the padding chafed. Looking around, he saw that most of the legionnaires he’d seen the night before had gone. There were only two men left, and both were obviously badly wounded. He wondered where Tellias was. The lanky southerner had taken a Lemnarian javelin through the leg early in the day and been forced to retreat, so he probably had survived the battle. Tellias was a good man to know; he always seemed to know what was happening.

Kamendian took off his gauntlets and flexed his hands. As he unbuckled his vambraces, it occurred to him that he had no idea what had happened to his sword. He vaguely remembered dropping his shield during the battle, but he must have lost his sword while unconscious. Or dead, he thought to himself. Had Lady Morgami actually restored him to life, or just healed him? Well, he thought, the end result is the same.

He shimmied out of his cuirass–his helmet seemed to have gone missing too–and peeled off the padded shirt underneath. His belly wasn’t even marked where the spear had gone through. It was vaguely unsettling. Kamendian finished unbuckling his greaves, stacked his armor properly, and left the tent to go find Tellias, or at least breakfast.

As it happened, he found both in the same place. Tellias was busying himself wheedling an extra bowl of gruel from the cooks. He was so pleased to see Kamendian alive that he paused in his pleadings long enough to clasp hands and say a few words. Later, with three bowls of gruel and a pickled clubroot between them, they talked at greater length.

“Only after a battle,” Tellias proclaimed, “is there ever enough food to go around.” Tellias’ appetite was legendary within the legion; a single legionnaire’s rations could not satisfy him. It gave him the slightly morbid habit of hanging around the kitchen after battles in hopes of drawing the rations of the dead. Some of the other men had rebuked him about it, but he always replied that as a dead man’s rations can do him no good, he, Tellias, might as well make some use of them. “Now tell me: where have you been? I didn’t see you come back with the main body of the legion, and you don’t look wounded. Did you get separated?”

After a brief hesitation, Kamendian told the story of his wound and his encounter with the demigoddess as best he could. Tellias looked him up and down when he was through.

“If you were any other man, I’d call you a liar. But I can’t see you making up something that complicated.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence. What I want to know, though, is what happened. Did we break the Storm King’s armies? The last thing I remember is we seemed to have broken the Anacharsian lines, but I haven’t a clue what happened after that.”

Tellias was quiet for a moment. He took a bite of clubroot and chewed pensively. “That’s a complicated question.”

“The simple answer, I suppose, is that we won. The Storm King was killed–at least bodily. The Storm Guards were smashed, and the slave armies scattered. We routed the Anacharsians, and the Storm King’s other allies retreated. So the day was ours, definitely.

“Whether we won…that’s less certain. Most of the Storm King’s major lieutenants escaped, it seems. All but two of the Silver Conclave died fighting the Storm King. Worst of all, though…the Princes are dead.”

“Which ones?”

“All four of them. Prince Alaces died with the other Conclave members. Stryses and Gorobin died with their legions. And an Anacharsian mage recognized young Rukunar when they pressed us nearly back to the baggage. They’re all dead.”

“But that means…”

“That means that the only legitimate heir is Princess Navaska. And rumor has it that the Emperor is ill–that he collapsed when he learned Rukunar was dead. I know for a fact that the Imperial carriages left for the Palace shortly after the battle ended. Navaska may be Empress soon, and she’s a thirteen-year-old girl who never expected to rule anything. The worst possible age for an heir, too! Too young to rule well, too old for a real regency.

“It also looks like the Grand Alliance is falling apart. Prince Gorobin was supposed to become the viceroy of the lands we’ve taken from the Storm King. Well, now he’s dead, and there isn’t anyone with the rank and the talent to do the job who’s available. Word around camp is that the Vanatasians claim that if the Empire can’t provide a proper viceroy, they should let the Vanatasians or the Casthaneans take charge of those lands. There’s no knowing if the Emperor would be willing to accept such terms, but the Chancellor of the North certainly isn’t. And this morning the Vanatasians broke camp. My bet would be that the Empire’s friendly days with Vanatas may be over.”

“Do you think we’ll have to fight the Vanatasians?” Kamendian asked. To be an Imperial legionnaire fighting against the armies of darkness was one thing, but fighting an ally was another. To say nothing of the life-debt he owed one particular Vanatasian.

Tellias looked down at his second bowl of gruel.

“I doubt that we will be fighting anyone anymore.”

“What does that mean?”

“Legate Orontes died in the Anacharsian attack. With the emperor ill, it’s highly unlikely that any new legates will be appointed any time soon. Which means they will almost certainly dissolve the Ebony Cormorant.”

Both men were quiet for a while. Tellias moved his gruel around with his spoon. He seemed to have lost his appetite.

“Well”, Kamendian essayed, “we could enlist with one of the other legions. There are sure to be vacancies after a battle like this one, and they take veterans over fresh recruits.”

“If we were the only legion being dissolved, that would work. But several legates died in the battle. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see several more forced into retirement.”

Kamendian looked at Tellias sharply. “What makes you say that?”

Tellias chuckled. “Kamendian, you have the political awareness of this pickle. If the emperor recovers, or if Navaska takes the throne with no difficulties, there’s no problem. But it’s more likely that one of the Imperial Chancellors will take the throne as Regent, or that Navaska will be murdered and someone from a cadet branch of the Imperial family put on the throne. And I have no doubt that the big players at court will take no chances. Which means that they will be trying to drive out any legates that they think would oppose them if it came to a succession war. Which means dissolved legions, which means more former legionnaires roaming around than I care to think about, which means slim chances of finding a new legion.”

Kamendian took a bite of the pickle and thought.

“How can you be so cheerful about a succession war?”

“I’m not cheerful. I’m realistic. If I thought I could affect the succession, I would worry about it. Given that I can’t, I worry about how the succession can affect me. In the long run, it won’t matter to anyone outside the court, anyway.

“We can try to look for a new legion, if you want. But my suspicion is we’ll have to be hired swords for a while at least. Unless you want to turn bandit. Or go back to the farm.”

“They haven’t dissolved the legion yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Kamendian finished his bowl of gruel; Tellias had already downed both of his. They broke the remainder of the clubroot in half, and went to walk around the encampment for a while.

Coda to an Age of Heroes
Episode 1
(May 9, 2000)

Standing on the battlefield at Shammari with an Anacharsian spear through his bowels, Kamendian learned that death comes easy. Just a moment too slow with the shield, and it’s over.

He could still breathe, meaning the spear must have missed his lungs, but he could feel warm liquid running down his belly and legs. Running quickly. The spearman’s hand on the shaft was only a few inches from the puncture in his cuirass; he’d been run through completely. The hand was smooth; the Anacharsian must be young.

Kamendian lifted his head to look at the man who’d killed him. Just a boy, really — fifteen, maybe. His cheeks were still smooth under the green-lacquered cheekguards of his helmet. He was gasping for breath, and staring at where his spear disappeared into Kamendian’s belly. His pale blue eyes were filled with disbelief, and a little fear.

Well, that’s how it ought to be, Kamendian thought to himself. This isn’t supposed to be fun, or easy. Killing people is our job. We aren’t supposed to enjoy it.

He was vaguely aware of his fellow legionnaires being pushed back around him. They were losing this battle. The Storm King would carry the day. Kamendian would leave his body on ground held by the enemy.

Until then, he thought, I suppose I should try to be of some use.

Abruptly, he spun to the right. The spear twisted out of the young Anacharsian’s hand and pulled him off balance. Coming around to face the young spearman again, Kamendian brought his sword down onto the Anacharsian’s unprotected shoulder, bellowing “Sarangia!” Green hide parted under his blade, and the young man fell to the ground. Kamendian flung himself to the left, knocking the Anacharsian there down with his shield, then sprung forward to attack the next rank of enemies. With all the strength of his twenty winters, he smote in two the shield in front of him. The second rank was holding their spears for attacking an enemy at distance; Kamendian was too close for them to strike, and he gave them no time to shift their grip.

As he struck down his third Anacharsian, Kamendian realized he was starting to lose the power of his sword arm. He dropped his shield — there wasn’t any point in trying to defend himself — took his hilt in both hands, and kept fighting. He was still shouting battle-cries, but he couldn’t hear himself over the buzz in his ears. His vision was blurring around the edges. He appreciated that; it kept him focused on the foe at hand.

The battle seemed almost mechanical now: green forms came out of the mist as he charged, and he struck at them as they passed. He felt a few hit him back, but it didn’t really matter anymore. And suddenly, they stopped coming.

With no one left to strike at, Kamendian could no longer keep himself upright. He fell to his knees. He struggled to turn around and go back to the fighting, but his legs refused to cooperate. He fell back into a sitting position, looking back the way he had come. His vision was blurring, but he could see wine-red shapes amid the green blur — the color of Legionnaire armor. They’d broken the Anacharsian line, Kamendian thought as his vision faded into roiling gray.

He could feel something wet against his face — probably grass. He must have fallen over. He could smell the dirt, and the coppery stink of blood. And then everything was gone.

His head was on something soft. He could hear men shouting to each other, but the sounds of battle were gone. There was a gentle breeze across his face. The air had the smell of a battlefield to it, but there was something else in it — a sort of freshness.

Kamendian opened his eyes. It was twilight; the sun was low in the sky. His vision was still fuzzy, but he could see someone’s face above him. A soft face, probably one of the boys from the baggage train. Strange that anyone should have bothered to scrape a common legionnaire off the field. Stranger that he was alive.

“Feeling better?”, inquired a feminine voice.

Kamendian blinked a few times and realized his benefactor was not, in fact, a boy from the baggage train. She was a smallish woman — Vanatasian, he would guess, from her dark hair and eyes. She looked familiar, which was in itself odd. There weren’t many women in the regular legions, and most of the fighting women he’d met were Khirbitei, large and fair. She couldn’t be a healer or a cook, though; she was wearing armor, and it looked well-used.

It came to him; Tellias had pointed her out as they were marching past the Vanatasians on the way to battle. Her name was Lady Morgami; she was the Marquise of somewhere in Vanatas, and the youngest daughter of the Lord of Battles.

Lords and Kings, he had his head in a demigoddess’ lap!

“You’ve done well,” Morgami said. “If it weren’t for you, we might have lost this flank. It’s good to see valor is still alive in the Imperial legions.”

She was smiling at him. Kamendian felt that he should say something, but his tongue didn’t seem to be working right. He wasn’t sure what to say even if it had been.

“Shh. Don’t try to talk. You’ll probably be weak for a while yet. Try to rest.”

She looked up. “Boy! There’s a legionnaire here who needs help back to his camp. He doesn’t need a healer, but someone will have to help him walk.”

Morgami looked down at him again. “Besides, no one ever knows what to say to me anyway.” She lifted his head off her lap and gently laid him to the ground. Then she leaned over and softly kissed him on the forehead. She smelled like morning, not at all as though she’d spent the day fighting.

“Good luck, legionnaire,” she said. Then she stood and walked away.

Index

Squishy Yellow Elegy
(1998)

Part I: Yearnings

My soul! it cries for comfort of a sort
To soothe the aching brain and calm the heart
And too, my stomach does its mass comport
To send its rumblings into every part

My tongue it thrashes to and fro in vain
My salivary glands do fruitless labor
Throughout my belly rings an empty pain
As if ’twere disemboweled with a saber

What shall I do? This hunger racks my frame.
It cries for remedy, and care most tender. 
What shall I do? How shall I quell this flame? 
My guts are as if put into a blender.

The balm is plain to see, just as you please.
It requires these the noodles, this the cheese.

Part II: The Quest

So to the mart I go to seek my fare
Among the hundred aisles I boldly search
And here I find a biscuit, here a leek
And over towards the back some salted perch

But when it seems that hope is truly lost
And all my plans for dinner come undone
I pass again below the grave sign “Past-
a”, there to seek the prize which must be won.  (Shh, it’s enjambment.)

And there my goal, my shining Xanadu!
The box of cardboard, holding little arcs
of noodles there within the cheerful blue.
(My hair it stands on end, and gives off sparks.)

 It is a box of Kraft on which to dine.
The bargain price: a dollar thirty-nine.

Part III: The Resolution

I charge into the kitchen, box in hand
My goal: a pot, and water thence to boil
So I may cause these noodles to expand,
and for the sauce of cheese, I’ll need some oil.

Heretic! you call me. I’ll deny it.
For the flavor’s in the sauce, the liquid cheese.
And if I may, to teach you, ruin your diet,
Pure vegetable oil is the way to please.

Butter and milk does make a runny sauce;
Butter alone has savor more by far.
But oil will make you rue your lifetime’s loss
That ne’er before you knew cheese thick as tar.

The noodles boiled while we did poke and tease.
Let’s sink our struggles in the mac and cheese.

Fin